Category Archives: Review

I give up, what’s the answer?

The next book I’ve been (labouring) reading is Riddle of the Sands, recommended as a classic spy/thriller. I thought I would like it. I wanted to like it. But I just didn’t.

The context is two young Englishmen on holiday (circa 1900), sailing around the coast of Germany in a small yacht. After another sailor tries to get them wrecked, they become suspicious that the German navy is up to something in the sand flats around the East Frisian islands, and attempt to investigate.

Unfortunately, I’m a land-lubber to the core, and a lot of the book is spent describing their nautical explorations around the area. It has some interesting and/or amusing moments, but there’s also a lot of jargon that went over my head (jibing, heeling, kedging, …).

I persevered, partly encouraged by comments from the narrator that things were about to escalate (e.g. “The decisive incidents of our cruise were now fast approaching.”). But they never did. There was one (brief) interesting moment regarding a thief attempting to sneak on board (while they’re beached at low tide), but overall it felt like a cheap writer’s trick to keep the reader turning pages (“It’s about to get good, honest!”). The one bit that could have been dramatic and exciting—struggling to reach a safe harbour in a sudden storm—is introduced by the claim that “I think I cannot do better than give extracts from my diary”*, which proceed to relate the incident in (ironically) very dry terms.

It reinforces the idea that any scene in a story should have a purpose; either advancing the plot, or affecting the characters (whether individually, or the relationships between them). At the very least, the events happening should be of interest. Well, as I said, I’m no sailor, so the events weren’t engrossing**. Owing to the genre, the characters don’t majorly change, so there’s not much going on there. And the plot moves about as slowly as their small yacht through the shallow channels in the sandbanks.

It doesn’t help that the patriotic, racist, colonialist, British empire feeling frequently hangs so thickly you can almost hear the tinny gramophone playing “Land of Hope and Glory” in the background. The very first sentence made me cringe, and I reproduce it here in all it’s backward splendour:

I HAVE read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude—save for a few black faces—have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism.

Oy. I’m glad we’ve moved on. That said, this is all my opinion/reaction, and someone else may find it “un-put-down-able”.

I was relieved when, moving on to The Big Sleep (shortly to be followed by Farewell, My Lovely), that I was immediately loving the style and tone. It should be a lot more fun to read. Watch this space…

* I was paraphrasing as I could not remember the exact quote, but then realised, given its vintage, the book was probably on Project Gutenberg.

** Not boring, per se, just not enough to keep me invested.

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Posted by on September 1, 2015 in Other, Review


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Better than Marrows

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

One of Agatha Christie’s earlier works, yet consistently rated one of her best, and I can see why. Everything fits together neatly, as usual, giving the reader the standard “I never would have worked all that out, but now I can see it’s the only possible explanation” feeling upon completion; the complications of the villain attempting to cover their tracks, but also numerous other characters having secrets to hide makes for a confusing time for all concerned.

Except Poirot (temporarily unretired from his quiet life growing marrows), of course; maddening as ever, he smugly hints at details only he knows the significance of. The most annoying thing is, he’s right.

That said, I did guess (and I use the term intentionally) the identity of the murderer. But it was purely through having ruled out most everyone else, and a vague feeling that they weren’t being entirely truthful rather than any understanding of how it all played out. I was as surprised as anyone else by the details.

I do remember feeling at some points, however, that whodunnits can tend to age badly. Technologically, socially, culturally, the setting comes across as quite alien. Not so strange as to be unrelateable—humans will be humans, then and now—but strange enough that you either don’t realise the meaning behind certain details, or don’t notice them at all.


I realise it’s a little silly to claim spoilers for a book that was published nearly 90 years ago, but the puzzle and the reveal is the whole raison d’être of the whodunnit genre.

What I like about the book is the masterful use of the “unreliable narrator”. It has the required “last person you would expect” that any good whodunnit should, along with “the one person with an unquestioned alibi”. Any genre-savvy detective should realise that anyone who doesn’t have an alibi is obviously innocent, and arrest the person who has arranged matters to make it obvious they couldn’t possibly be the murderer. 🙂

As I said, I guessed Dr. Sheppard was probably the culprit, having decided the phone call was to provide him with an alibi (establishing him as being at home at whatever-time-it-was). I had no clue it was to ensure he was first on the scene and could “clean up”. I also hadn’t the foggiest about the boots, the ring, the quill, the scrap, the chair, or the footprints, but was impressed that it all made sense in the end.


Posted by on August 17, 2015 in Other, Review


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Prisoner’s Game

I haven’t been doing much reading of late. Or rather, I have, but it’s mainly been things like news or blogs (so purportedly-non-fiction). However, the other week, with a bout of bad weather closing in, I emerged from the library struggling to balance a stack of books.

They were all things I’ve been meaning to look up for a while, so it was good to get a round tuit.

Ender’s Game (graphic novel)

Since first seeing adverts for the movie version a couple of years ago, I’ve been pondering reading this without much passion. I spotted the graphic novel* version, which seemed like a good alternative. However, I found it somewhat … meh. I had a sense of there being some interesting ideas involved, but it didn’t really focus on the bits I wanted to know more about. Like “who are the aliens?”, “are these kids genetically engineered, or what?”, “WHY is it so important that they use kids?”.

It’s possible that some of these come through in the original novel and have been pruned in the conversion. If so, this seems a sad case of a work losing it’s perspective/tone in being adapted. The graphic novel comes across as cheerless, unemotional, and quite brutal in places. The way certain scenes are portrayed could be the difference—more than plot needs to be preserved to achieve an authentic translation**.

One thing I particularly found annoying was that, following the ending (which I won’t spoil), the remaining kids (who have spent the last few years being trained for war), essentially brush it off with a “Well, I guess we go back to school now. That’s what kids do, after all! Haha!”. This seems far too simple and abrupt, and I’d hope it was just an artifact of the graphic novel.

The Prisoner of Zenda

An old-timey swashbuckler (from the late 1800s), this presents an interesting variation on the prisoner’s dilemma. The hero is visiting a foreign country, and happens to resemble the current monarch. The villain drugs and kidnaps the king on the day of his coronation, so the hero is roped in as a double. The rest of the plot develops under the cloud of this cold-war-esque stalemate: neither the hero (impersonating the king) or the villain (holding the king prisoner) can denounce the other without revealing their own duplicity.

It’s otherwise fairly straightforward, and fun, but with an interestingly non-Hollywood ending (list of spoilers):

  • The main villain is killed offscreen by one of his underlings
  • The second-in-command villain (The Dragon in tvtropes idiom) essentially causes the villain’s downfall, and escapes with barely a scratch (apparently reappearing in later novels by the same author)
  • The hero doesn’t receive any major tangible reward (e.g. money, title, position, etc), instead being satisfied with having an adventure (that he cannot admit to anyone) and saving the day
  • The hero and his true love never marry, and never meet again, all for the sake of duty

Up next … The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

* Comic book. 🙂

** And it is a translation. The descriptiveness and depth of prose is replaced by visuals, staging, actions, etc. A graphic novel is closer to a film representation than a book (probably part of the reason comic adaptations have become so popular in Hollywood of late).

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Posted by on August 14, 2015 in Other, Review


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